It's always a good day when you encounter a dragonfly on Main Street USA.
Such was the case on Wednesday, July 17 when seemingly out of nowhere, a shiny Tramea lacerata "black saddlebags" appeared in front of me on the sidewalk fronting the Vacaville Chamber of Commerce.
Its habitat is near ponds, lakes, ditches, slow streams, or other bodies of water, but there it was.
"It is a freshly emerged female, probably on its maiden flight," said naturalist Greg Kareofelas of Davis, an associate with the Bohart Museum of Entomology, University of California, Davis. "This is its most vulnerable time. If it gets through the next day or so, off to fast flying it will go and you will never get close to it again."
I gingerly picked it up and photographed it on a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia). Half an hour later, I witnessed it fly over our fish pond, never to be seen again. At least by me!
This species, found throughout North America, is included in a Bohart Museum's poster, "Dragonflies of California." Designed by Fran Keller (then a doctoral student in entomology at UC Davis and now an assistant professor at Folsom Lake College), with images by Kareofelas, the poster is available in the Bohart Museum's gift shop in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge Building on Crocker Lane, UC Davis campus.
The black saddlebags dragonfly belongs to the Order Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies), suborder Anisoptera (dragonflies) family Libellulidae (skimmers), genus Tramea (saddlebags) and species lacerata (black saddlebags). "It flies constantly, often gliding, perches infrequently," according to BugGuide.net. The University of Michigan biokids website yields more information.
It's easily distinguishable. Says Wikipedia: "It has distinctive wings with characteristic black blotches" at its proximal ends, "which make the dragonfly look as though it is wearing saddlebags. The black saddlebags is a relatively large dragonfly at about 5 centimeters in length. The body is thin and black, and the female may have lighter spotting or mottling dorsally. The head is much wider than the rest of the body and is dark brown in color...Some populations of this dragonfly undertake migrations. Both the larvae and adult forms are efficient predators of mosquitoes so they are a helpful insect to have in wet areas where mosquito infestations occur." A wonderful predator...
Of predators, sidewalks and black saddlebags...
Wait! They may NOT have been ladybugs, scientifically known as lady beetles, family Coccinellidae.
“I'm still not convinced that the swarms are ladybugs,” Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum of Entomology and professor of entomology at UC Davis, told us Friday. “It's pretty late in the season for them and apparently there's no hard evidence for ladybugs except anecdotes that folks have seen a lot of ladybugs in the region. We were seeing a lot of ladybugs in the Imperial Dunes when we were there in March.”
Scientists spotted the cloud, about 10 miles wide and a mile above the ground around 9 p.m. They ruled out bats and birds. The temperature in the air? About 40 degrees or lower—considered too cold for ladybugs.
“Forty degrees is too cold for their flight muscles, but if there's a wind and they've already warmed up, it's possible they could stay airborne,” Kimsey said, adding she'd like to see some hard evidence that these were indeed ladybugs. “Otherwise this is all just speculation.”
The ladybugs were thought to be the migratory convergent lady beetles, Hippodamia convergens. Some 200 species of ladybugs reside in California. (See information on this beetle on the UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program website.)
Speculation abounds. Why the huge swarm? Maybe it was the result of a combination of cues, such as temperatures and length of day, climate change (wildfires?), and lack of food? A perfect storm?
Kimsey told reporter Maanvi Singh of The Guardian in a June 7th news story: “It's too bad there wasn't anyone in a private plane up in the air at that time. We could've figured it out based on which dead insects were splatted across the wings.””
Kimsey knows about those bug splats. She was the nation's only entomologist selected for the NASA SPLAT/Boeing team to research how to decrease bug splats on aircraft and thus increase fuel efficiency in commercial jets. NASA engineers developed four different surface treatments designed to repel bugs and Boeing developed wing modifications to test an aircraft at Shreveport, La.
By the way, a Boeing EcoDemonstrator 575 took flight, reaching an altitude of 5000 feet to maximize bug splats. The panels generated 100 and 500 splats each. Kimsey identified all the insects and found that a relatively small number of species caused the bulk of the splats. They included flower flies, aphids, thrips, muscid flies, midges, mosquitoes and love bugs. Kimsey's excellence in teaching, research and public service led to her being named the 2016 recipient of the Academic Senate's Distinguished Scholarly Public Service Award and a comment from her nominators that her SPLAT research was a "great public service to NASA, the airline industry and worldwide passengers who depend on air travel."
Naturalist Greg Kareofelas, an associate at the Bohart Museum of Entomology, has never seen such a cloud but has photographed lady beetles overwintering in California's Coast Range. "When they are at the place they will spend the winter, they hide under leaves and other detritus and unless you dig down to the ground level, you don't really see them or notice they are there. I guess this is the way they are protected from the cold. I know the places I have found them are under snow for the winter. It is only when they are ready to disperse in the spring, do they congregate like on tree trunks and other places above ground level."
UC Davis emeritus professor Hugh Dingle, author of Migration: The Biology of Life on the Move (second edition, 2014, Oxford University Press), a sequel to the first edition published in 1996, says the cloud may have been lady beetles. "I guess lady beetles, but I suspect other insects were in the swarm as well."
"This one was especially large, but yes, there have been other swarms showing up on radars, especially locusts, some moths," Dingle said. "Could also have been moths, grasshoppers, etc. I confess, though, that the swarm was so large that I wonder if there was a glitch somewhere on the radar or something?"
Now if there had just been a plane near that cloud, as Kimsey pointed out, we'd have known exactly what was in that swarm.
Birds, bats, bloom? Unidentified objects?
Splat! Identified objects.
They don't announce their arrival or departure.
If you're an insect photographer, or a wanna-be-insect photographer, expect the unexpected and don't go anywhere without your camera.
That applies to such simple things as walking out your back door and stepping into your pollinator garden.
It was Friday morning, Oct. 12, and we watched a gust of wind stir the African blue basil, tousle the milkweed, and whip the 12-foot-high Mexican sunflower. "Ah, wind," I thought. "A good day for dragonflies."
As if on cue, a variegated meadowhawk dragonfly, Sympetrum corruptum, touched down on a bamboo stake, and looked right at me. I edged closer and "she" (gender identified by naturalist Greg Kareofelas, an associate with the Bohart Museum of Entomology, University of California, Davis) quickly left her perch.
I figured she would return and she did. Camera already raised, I slowly pointed my Nikon D800 with the 200mm macro lens and pressed the shutter. She left. She returned. She left. She returned.
A 'portrait studio' with the subject giving me "yes-no-maybe" answers.
In one view below, you can see the “bi-colored” Pterostigma on the wing tip and the two black spots on the top of the tip of the abdomen," noted Kareofelas. "This is unique to this species."
In another view, you can see the blurred image of a Mexican sunflower (Tithonia) forming a backdrop.
Insect photography takes patience, persistence and perseverance because these six-legged critters don't announce their arrival or their departure, not like at an airport or a train station.
But they are there. "At any time, it is estimated that there are some 10 quintillion (10,000,000,000,000,000,000) individual insects alive," according to the Smithsonian Institute. That's about 200 million insects for every human on the planet.
Your camera will find at least one of them at any given time of day.
Watching it like a hawk...
A variegated meadowhawk dragonfly, Sympetrum corruptum, that is.
We look forward to breezes--even strong gusts--in our little pollinator garden in Vacaville, Calif., because often we'll see dragonflies touch down.
They'll hunt, perch, and hunt again. The wind threatens to dismount them but they hang tight.
Such was the case on Sept. 28, a time between summer and fall. Clouds parted, the sun burst through, and the Mexican sunflowers (Tithonia) and blue spike salvia (Savlia uliginosa) swayed in the breeze.
This dragonfly swayed, too. But the wind did not defeat it. Not this "hawk."
Variegated meadowhawks live near ponds, lakes, and swamps--and if you're lucky, they'll visit your back yard. They are largely tan or gray with a pale face that is tan in young males and females but becomes red in mature males, according to OdonataCentral.org. They're found throughout the United States and southern Canada; also Mexico south to Belize and Honduras. "This species may be seen on the ground more than other meadowhawks. It will also readily perch on the tips of grass stems and tree branches. It can be numerous flying over roads, lawns, meadows, marshes and ponds...It is largely tan or gray with a pale face that is tan in young males and females but becomes red in mature males."
Interested in dragonflies? The Bohart Museum of Entomology at the University of California, Davis (located in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge building on Crocker Lane) offers a beautiful dragonfly poster, "Dragonflies of California," in its gift shop. It's the work of entomologist Fran Keller (she received her doctorate in entomology from UC Davis and is now an assistant professor at Folsom Lake College) and naturalist-photographer Greg Kareofelas, a Bohart associate whose expertise includes butterflies and dragonflies.
Just call it "my old flame."
Well, it's not mine, but it is a flame of sorts, a flame skimmer dragonfly (Libellula saturata) and it's firecracker red.
We see this species frequenting our pollinator garden in Vacaville, which includes a fish pond, flower beds, and bamboo stakes for their perches.
If you like dragonflies, you may want to purchase a dragonfly poster at the gift shop in the Bohart Museum of Entomology, located in Room 1124 of the Academic Surge building on Crocker Lane, UC Davis. It features 18 species of dragonflies, ranging from the common whitetail and green darner to the Western river cruiser and the bison snaketail. And, of course the flame skimmer.
The poster? It's the work of former UC Davis entomology doctoral candidate Fran Keller, now an assistant professor at Folsom Lake College, and naturalist/photographer Greg Kareofelas of Davis. Keller received her doctorate in entomology, studying with Lynn Kimsey, director of the Bohart Museum and professor of entomology at UC Davis.